Older students set to return to in-person learning full-time by April 28
In accordance with recent state guidance, Wareham Public Schools will bring its Middle School students back for in-person instruction five days a week on or before Wednesday, April 28. Due to transportation limitations, the district will bring its High School students back at the same time as its Middle School students.
Wareham’s elementary students are still set to return to in-person classes five-days a week by Monday, April 5.
Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Shaver-Hood presented more detailed plans for students’ return to full-time in-person learning during the March 11 School Committee meeting.
Despite an earlier statement to the contrary, Shaver-Hood said it was possible some students would have to change teachers due to the shift back to full-time in-person instruction.
“Some students may not have their same teacher,” Shaver-Hood said, “because we may need to pull a teacher back who's been doing remote to do in-person, and then reshuffle students.”
The apparent change of plans followed State Commissioner of Education Jeffrey Riley's announcement that remote instruction would no longer count toward required student learning time hours for Middle School students after April 28.
“It’s not ideal,” Shaver-Hood said of the possibility of class changes. “But there’s not been anything about this year that’s been ideal.”
Returning to in-person classes five days a week for all students brings another challenge: combining the students who have been broken into two groups called cohorts since hybrid learning began in October.
Under the current plan, which extended in-person school days on March 8, students of all ages who attend Wareham Public Schools remain broken into two cohorts. Each cohort attends in-person classes each week for two full days that are only slightly shorter than standard pre-covid school days.
One cohort attends classes Monday and Tuesday, and the other attends classes Thursday and Friday. Wednesday is a remote day for all students.
During off-days — meaning the days a student’s cohort isn’t learning in-person — the student is responsible for completing worksheets, readings and online activities on their own.
The upcoming switch to full-time in-person instruction for all students means cohorts must be combined, which drastically increases the number of students at school on any given day.
To accommodate the increase, classroom seating will be reduced from 6 feet apart to 3 feet apart. The state has only required 3 feet of social distancing between desks, but Wareham schools maintained 6 feet of distance while it was able.
Teachers’ stations will remain 6 feet away from students.
Shaver-Hood said one of the district’s concerns is that maintaining 3 feet of distance within classrooms might not be possible, meaning administrators will have to look “for other spots,” to educate students.
Deanna Semple, president of the Wareham Education Association, said the commissioner’s mandate was made “without a concern as to social distancing, staff welfare, building space, sufficient teachers and staff — without a care for any of it.”
She went on to point out that it is likely the district will run into problems due to limited building space.
“If my classroom cannot maintain 3 feet social distancing between students, [Commissioner] Riley says ‘That's ok, put those extra kids in the gym, with the overflow from other classrooms,’” Semple said. “So, in April, let's rip 6-year-olds from their teacher, stick them in a giant room with a new teacher, different classmates and a brand new schedule?”
But even that plan would be unsustainable, she said.
“Oh, wait, we can't do that at my school because the gym is being used as a cafeteria for half the day,” Semple said. “So where shall we go now?”
Riley advised that districts could use other community buildings as overflow classrooms, Semple said, but she noted that he failed to consider how students would be transported and where additional teachers to staff those overflow classes would come from.
The district must also evaluate transportation changes to accomodate the shift to full-time in-person schedules for all students.
The state has removed almost all restrictions for transporting students. Students and bus drivers are still required to wear masks and windows must be open 2 inches. In inclement weather, every other window can be closed.
“This is certainly a very drastic change from what it was when we first started school,” Shaver-Hood said.
She did not specify what the district’s new plans were regarding transportation, although she noted she would be meeting with the bus drivers’ union to discuss the topic on March 12.
Not all covid-19 safety precautions will change, however. Continued mask wearing in school buildings is “non-negotiable,” Shaver-Hood said.
Lunches will remain the length they are under the current plan: elementary students have 20 minutes, while Middle School and High School students have 25 minutes. Seats in the lunchroom — where students’ masks are off so they can eat — will continue to be 6 feet apart.
Shaver-Hood noted that the district applied for two waivers, which would allow the district to defer bringing back some students until after the state-mandated deadlines. First, the district applied for a waiver to bring all students, including elementary schoolers, back full-time by Monday, April 26.
The other waiver was a request to bring the district’s fifth graders back full-time along with the other students at the Middle School. Shaver-Hood said because Wareham’s fifth graders are part of the Middle School, it makes more sense to bring the whole school back at the same time.
“I had a conversation with the commissioner’s office today, and they indicated that the second waiver that pertained to fifth grade would be approved,” Shaver-Hood said.
The commissioner’s office “did not speak very favorably” of the district’s request to defer returning all students until April 26, Shaver-Hood said. She said she does not believe the state will approve that waiver.
Parent input required
Shaver-Hood emphasized that parents and guardians have until March 16 to complete a survey the district sent out March 10. The survey asks parents to select how they would like their student to finish out the remainder of the school year.
There are two options: fully in-person or fully remote.
“That’s it,” Shaver-Hood said. “That’s what the commissioner has said, [that’s what] the governor is supporting.”
“We really need you to fill out this survey,” Shaver-Hood said.
Preliminary responses to the survey — gathered between roughly 2 p.m. March 10 (when the letter with the link was sent to parents) and 10 a.m. March 11 — indicate that a majority of students will return to fully in-person learning, rather than fully remote learning.
Further complicating the planning process is an increase in the number of students who had been home-schooled re-enrolling in schools.
Shaver-Hood said there had been “an uptick” in such cases.
Shaver-Hood encouraged parents to think carefully about their decision. While it might be possible to switch children from fully remote learning to in-person instruction later, there are no guarantees, she said.
“We will put [the student] on a list, and there’ll be a transition period,” Shaver-Hood said. “And the transition period will take as long as it takes for us to safely move that child back into the building without destroying the 3 feet apart.”
The district will not alter its plans to keep students 3 feet apart to accommodate children switching from remote to in-person learning after March 16.
Shaver-Hood said adjustments will be made depending on available space.
The survey can be completed here: https://forms.gle/m9fsG8sva1PDTywTA.